George Pell has been found guilty of historical sex abuse. Picture: Tony Gough
George Pell has been found guilty of historical sex abuse. Picture: Tony Gough

Catholic church cannot hide from Pell verdict

THE news that Australia's most senior Catholic, Cardinal George Pell, has been found guilty of child sexual abuse will rightly send shockwaves through the Church and wider community both here and abroad.

While an appeal has been lodged, the significance of this development for survivors of abuse and its wider implications for the Catholic Church if the guilty finding is upheld cannot be overstated.

The Catholic Church must show that it has heard the message - that people the world over are horrified not only by the abuses that have occurred, but at the continuing appalling response of the Church to abuse survivors and the reforms needed to ensure such events can never happen again.

For decades, survivors have had to endure the Catholic Church turning a deaf ear to calls for it to respond to the abuse occurring in its name. For too long, the Church has repeatedly shown it is incapable of taking responsibility for the actions of its members or showing any genuine compassion or remorse to survivors.

Indeed, it seems the Catholic Church wastes every opportunity it has - even those it initiates - to show definitive action and leadership on abuse.

Just last weekend, Pope Francis headed a "landmark" summit of global Church leaders on preventing clerical sexual abuse, yet the response could not have been more appalling. There was no clear plan offered as to how the Catholic Church will deal with those found guilty of committing or covering up sexual crimes against children, and in the lead-up to the summit the Pope stunningly referred to those who criticise the Church as "friends of the devil".

Despite everything that is known about historical abuse within the Catholic Church, the deaf ear and astonishing lack of compassion among the leadership of the Church prevails.

It is something I have seen many times in the Church's handling of claims brought on behalf of my own clients for abuse, the consequences of which in many instances has served only to further exacerbate the suffering of survivors.

The reality however is that the Catholic Church, try as it might, cannot hide from the guilty finding that has been handed down to Cardinal Pell.

If the verdict is upheld, it goes to the very top of the Catholic Church - not just here in Australia but globally.

Whatever the outcome, it must be an impetus for the Church to at long last show a real commitment to survivors - not only in how it responds to this verdict but also any implications that stem more widely from it.

In Australia that must start with the Catholic Church putting aside its internal dysfunction and ensuring all Dioceses and Orders enter the National Redress Scheme as an urgent priority, something it announced would happen to much fanfare last May, with the Church set to be the first non-government institution to join the scheme.

Opponents of Cardinal George Pell react after he left court today. Picture: Michael Dodge/Getty
Opponents of Cardinal George Pell react after he left court today. Picture: Michael Dodge/Getty

The Church has shown the same recalcitrant approach to many of the other much-needed reforms recommended by the Royal Commission to prevent future abuses.

Common sense recommendations such as lifting the seal of the confessional to report incidents of child sexual abuse continue to be fiercely fought by the Catholic Church in any state that attempts to implement this important legal reform, with the Church having to constantly be dragged to the realisation that all children deserve to be protected from child sexual abuse.

The same also sadly can be said of the Church's approach to those who choose to exercise their rights in bringing legal claims to hold the Church to account - for years survivors, including many of my own clients, have had to fight constant challenges and road blocks to seek justice.

After a Royal Commission and countless brave survivors coming forward to tell their stories over many years it defies belief that we are still having to call on the Catholic Church to do the right thing in showing it is genuine in seeking to right the wrongs of the past.

But if the guilty finding of one of its most senior officials is upheld, the Church cannot hide any longer - it must at long last show leadership, and this must start with putting the needs of survivors first.

Michelle James is a principal lawyer and the national head of Abuse Law at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers.